We will now hear oral evidence from the Local Government Association, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and the No Recourse to Public Funds Network. We have until 2.45 for this session. Welcome, witnesses. Please introduce yourselves for the record.
Thank you, witnesses, for coming in and helping us this afternoon. I want to start with the provisions in the Bill to remove support from those who have exhausted their asylum process. Until now there has been an ability to remove the support, but it has been rarely used. There was a pilot 10 years or so ago and it has been used rarely since then. Can you give the Committee your view on why the pilot was unsuccessful? I think it involved about 116 families and the net result was that very few, if any, of those families went voluntarily, which was the intended purpose. There was a possibly unintended consequence, which was that very many more went off the radar, and all sorts of other consequences followed. So can you give us your own view as to why you think that pilot was so unsuccessful?
Councillor Simmonds: I am happy to lead on this. I think others may have technical comments about aspects of it. It is pretty clear that quite a tangled web of legislation needs to be gone through before support can be removed. Once it is removed in the formal sense, there are a lot of organisations that exist to provide support to families for the time in which they remain in the UK. There will pretty much always be, in my experience, other legal avenues that people can explore should one particular avenue be closed down.
The key concern that local government has is that the evidence from those pilots was extremely clear in that the withdrawal of support does not result in a significant incentive for people to leave the UK. The conclusion that follows is that we should not expect that withdrawal of support in future would result in any significant increase in the numbers departing. We would expect that the cost burdens, whether they fall on local authorities or on civil and voluntary groups in the wider sense, would remain.
Paul Greenhalgh: Barnardo’s did an evaluation of the pilot programme. Not only did people not leave but 35 families out of the 116 families went missing; in a sense, they decided to go underground. Some of those families abandoned their children to the care of local authorities, and that pilot led us to question the assumptions about behavioural change that underpin some aspects of the Bill.
May I clarify one thing I think you just said? Did you say that a number of parents abandoned their children to the care of local authorities, so their children went into care?
Henry St Clair Miller: The only thing I would add is that people who were around at the time felt that there was a lack of Home Office engagement with the families in that process up to the point when support was withdrawn. Perhaps engagement was not of the nature necessary for families to know their options and understand the consequences of not engaging with Home Office requirements. Should the Bill go ahead, one of the unknowns is exactly what Home Office engagement with the families would be. We might see again the likelihood of asylum support being withdrawn at the end of the process. We want to know exactly what that engagement will be to minimise the risk described by my colleagues.
Back in 2008, Mr Duncan Smith—obviously he is now in a different role—described it as a “failed policy”. That may explain why it has not been used since the pilot. Do you disagree with that conclusion?
On that point, Mr Greenhalgh used the phrase behavioural change. I think we all understand what the Government are trying to achieve, but you do not believe that the Bill does that. What should be in the Bill to get the behavioural change that the Government are trying to achieve?
Paul Greenhalgh: One of the difficulties with the Bill as currently framed is that there will be a number of what we would perceive as unintended consequences. They are twofold, mainly around our duties to provide support and care in certain circumstances arising from the Children Act 1989 and the Care Act 2014. Mainly, section 17 of the Children Act is something that would come into play in these sorts of cases.
At the moment, 80% of those cases are funded by no recourse to public funds arrangements as a result of a Children Act assessment. As a result of the current drafting of the Bill, a lot of families who would receive no further support as a result of their asylum status being confirmed would come to the local authority if they were about to become destitute. The local authority would be bound to make a human rights assessment and, if there are children involved, a children in need assessment. Those assessments take some time, so if a family are at immediate risk of destitution, we would have to put immediate measures in place.
So the first of our significant concerns is that this could result in a huge increase in demand on local authorities, which would in effect be a cost shunt from the Home Office to local authorities in an unfunded way. The other consequence is the danger that people will not come to local authorities but will go underground, and therefore be more at risk of exploitation and less able to be supported by the authorities.
If those are our concerns, we think some measures need to be put in place to provide appropriate safeguards. First, there should be a clarification of assessment processes, to reduce the burden falling on local authorities and the difficulty for families of having to go through what at the moment are two assessment processes. If the assessment process could be streamlined, that would be one improvement to the Bill.
The other significant issue is funding and the extent to which, however we frame the Bill, it will result in more cost to local authorities to support people on an interim basis. If there is recognition that those costs are a new burden, and if there is engagement between local authorities and the Home Office to work together on a practical level to support those families and help them to engage, we could see some of the intention of the Bill working more effectively.
Perhaps I could just pick up on that last point and ask the witnesses about that engagement. Are you engaging with the Home Office and working through some of those details that you suggest may be needed?
Paul Greenhalgh: We are. We had meetings with Home Office officials during the consultation period. We put in a joint response, and 48 local authorities sent in individual responses. The feedback from Home Office officials is that there was a consistent response from local authorities. We made it clear that we were very happy to continue to work with Home Office officials, and we have been doing that. We have had three technical meetings so far, and we are trying to work through how we can try to address together those issues that I have raised.
Councillor Simmonds: I thank the Minister for making himself available for those discussions. The one challenge that we have found at a political level is that there are sometimes differences of opinion between officials in different Government Departments. For example, on Children Act duties, traditionally we have had feedback from the Home Office that broadly says, “We are seeing people through our role in asylum and immigration, which we are here to manage.” Those in the Department for Education would say, “We’re not interested in that. We see them as vulnerable children, and therefore the duties are absolutely and unambiguously clear, and at the highest possible level.” The more consistency that we can get on some of those challenges, the better.
No doubt we will come on to the detail of some of the cross-governmental work that is taking place.
In your responses to the 2005 pilot, you expressed your thoughts on what occurred 10 years ago. Obviously, the world has moved on; other provisions exist in respect of identifying people, and encouraging or supporting them to depart. Also, the proposals in the Bill are different on the balance of engagement, with the onus being put on the family to show that there is a genuine obstacle to their departure, rather than the family not co-operating and the Home Office evidencing that. So a different approach is being taken. Do you see some of those differences as being relevant in the context of the effect and workability of the new proposals?
Henry St Clair Miller: I guess that sometimes that is where the local authority position arises. We are not within the Home Office; we are not Home Office enforcement. So, sometimes it is difficult for us to comment on the barriers, in terms of leveraging return or indeed enforcing return.
I guess that local authorities working in this area have had a kind of old-fashioned approach to it—that we should end up with actual outcomes when we look at immigration enforcement. The outcome might be a grant of status, if that is appropriate, or it might be a removal.
It is often said that things such as a lack of documentation and a lack of engagement from the families are among the key reasons why removal rates are very low. Yet from the outside—from a local authority perspective—we have seen other reports about how things are organised for immigration processes in some of the caseworking teams, the barriers to processing cases, the delays in deciding applications and possible challenges to making sure that cases that have recently been refused are tasked to removal teams. I guess that we have always thought that there is scope to work with the existing framework, whether that is a family returns policy or an enforcement policy.
Notwithstanding all that, we can see why Home Office officials want to leverage compliance to some degree. We understand why it is thought that the tools proposed in the Immigration Bill will help to do that. From a local authority perspective, we are trying to work in that context, particularly if the Immigration Bill becomes law, while ensuring that the remaining safeguards—we provide a safety net for the most vulnerable—are retained where necessary. Of course, the unknown—the risk—is how many people do not go and what the burden is on the local authority. Indeed, that risk is not only about numbers and referrals but about cost, because we carry the cost burden of financial support, which goes on at the moment for more than two years on average.
Immigration, as you know, is a complex area of work. Lots of different approaches work, and we have been keen to work out with Home Office officials which are the best tools to do this in the work that we have done.
Paul Greenhalgh: More broadly, we are keen to build partnerships with the Home Office and other relevant Government Departments. We see room for improvement in the way we engage together on identification and compliance in voluntary returns, and potentially on family engagement and supporting family returns. In the context of a new piece of legislation, it is important that we make that surrounding partnership work more effective.
Councillor Simmonds: I have little to add to that. The bottom line, from a local authority perspective, is that if people are not entitled to support and should not be in the country, they need to leave. The challenge is that, although a lot of the debate—understandably, in the context of the Bill—is about the rights or otherwise of individuals, the balance is that local authorities have a set of duties. For the most part, they are general duties. We are blind to a person’s immigration status. A child is a child, and we have a responsibility under the Children Act 1989 to intervene where appropriate. Any intention to remove entitlements or rights from certain individuals needs to be balanced by a recognition that that does not remove the local authority’s duty in those circumstances to provide support.
May I go back to a couple of answers that were given? First, on streamlining the assessment process, I think that you mentioned two assessments. Is the first the assessment for asylum support in the first place and the second the assessment for the local authority, or are there two local authority assessments?
Paul Greenhalgh: There are two local authority assessments. When people come to local authorities for support, they often come because their situation has worsened and they need support to avoid destitution. Often, it is about accommodation and subsistence support. The local authority, under section 17 of the Children Act, has wider obligations to consider the welfare needs of the child in whatever circumstances. When people have gone through an asylum process, we need to conduct a human rights assessment to determine whether ending support would be a breach of their human rights, before we complete the children in need assessment. That is a burdensome process for local authorities and for families.
I just want to pick up a second point. Evidence has been given that the objective is that people leave, and therefore there is no burden on anyone to provide any support, but the evidence from the 2005 pilot seems to show pretty strongly that if that is the objective, this is not the way to achieve it. The likelihood is, therefore, that local authorities will be picking up the burden of supporting families, particularly those with children—children are children, in this.
You talked about a cost shift. What is the cost increase when asylum support is swapped for putting a child or family who are not going to go voluntarily—a child may not have any choice at all—on local authority support? It seems to me that under these provisions the cost will go up, because you take someone from one regime to a regime for which they have to go through two assessments, which someone has to carry out, and be put on to temporary support and further support. They could have become more destitute and so need more support. Am I right in thinking that this is not just a cost shunt—you are not simply moving cost x from the Home Office to the local authority but shifting and increasing it, so the cost to the taxpayer goes up?
I want to drill down on the shift of the cost burden from the Home Office to local authorities. We already know that schedule 3 to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 broadly limits access to local authority social care for families anyway. Is there not a mechanism between local authorities and the Home Office that is triggered when a family present themselves and it becomes clear that they are in this country unlawfully, so that they get deported and the local authority does not have to shoulder the burden of the cost?
Henry St Clair Miller: I think you are referring to the exclusions from social services support under schedule 3 to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, whereby if a local authority is working with someone in an excluded group—a failed asylum seeker would likely fall within the excluded groups—the authority is instructed to provide support only if it is necessary for the purpose of avoiding a breach of human rights. It is that exception to the exclusion that gives rise to the human rights assessment, which can be quite time consuming for a local authority.
When you work in this area you have to be quite specific about each client group. It is true that an asylum seeker who has already put in an application has been through the courts, and the courts have decided that there would be no human rights breach in returning the family to the parents’ country of origin. The best interests of the child will have been looked at within that, and the courts will have decided that. It should then be possible for the local authority to follow the same line within the human rights assessment and opt to say that no assistance is required other than a return to the country of origin through assisted voluntary return.
It is a little bit different in our experience, because a lot of the applicants go on to put in further representations under the UK’s immigration rules. That is often on the basis of article 8 human rights and on the basis of there being children. Once the application goes in, there is a legal barrier to that family leaving, and it is impossible to enact schedule 3 to withhold support if the family is destitute.
I am a little confused. Are these families not here unlawfully—has it not been deemed through the court process that they are failed asylum seekers, or whatever category they are in, and so they are staying in the country unlawfully anyway? Are you saying that local authorities traditionally ignore that process and go beyond that? Why would you continue to offer support?
Henry St Clair Miller: At present failed asylum-seeking families are not a group within our cohort. We are usually working with visa overstayers who have been in the UK for many years undetected—possibly with safeguarding concerns about the welfare of children after long periods of forced dependency for the family. In our experience, these people are usually at the beginning of the process of applying for leave once we have come into contact with them. That is quite different from people who have been in the asylum process and all appeal rights have been exhausted. At the moment, we do not see so many of those cases.
So I assume—not I assume—it is the case that if you were looking at schedule 3 and Humans Rights Act assessments, you would have regard primarily for the decisions of the court in that equation.
So the cases that you are primarily dealing with do not apply to the Bill, because the Bill talks about removing support for those who have gone through the process and are deemed to be unlawful immigrants.
Paul Greenhalgh: Our concern is about families who have been given that status in terms of how the Bill is currently drafted. The onus will be on the families to leave rather than there being an enforcement to their departure. While they are still in this country, local authorities still have legal duties to them under the legislation that we have previously cited.
Councillor Simmonds: It is probably worth giving you some figures. When we look at the numbers for local authority responsibilities in providing support to irregular migrants, around 80% of those who are supported are those under the section 17 Children Act responsibilities. The remaining group tend to be with care needs under the Mental Health Act and the Care Act, so the vast majority will be entitled to support through their status as families with children, and there will always be further legal avenues by which they can regain that entitlement should one avenue be closed off.
I have just a small question. Currently, when someone has failed their last appeal, what is the average time before they actually get deported? I just want an idea of the timescale in which they would be destitute.
Henry St Clair Miller: It is tentatively months. The main thing, whether it is data from our NRPF Connect database or independent research, is that the time on support for an individual case is currently well above two years. That is a statistical fact. I cannot determine the exact timescales from an actual refusal or how many claims are made within that period. I guess there is a concern for local authorities that, if we have to engage these safety net responsibilities, there should not be an assumption that it will be just short term. Obviously, we are very keen to work with the Home Office to try and reduce the time. I think we are making progress and I think the Home Office has been good in respect to hearing about our difficulties, so this may change, but I can only give the stats that we have currently.
Does the Committee have any reason not to accept the figures in the Home Office’s August consultation document? I am referring to the public consultation on reforming support for failed asylum seekers and other illegal migrants. I am looking at the figures given for the scale of the situation: an estimated 15,000 refused asylum seekers with an estimated cost of £73 million. Do you accept those figures or have any concerns about them?
That is very helpful. Thank you. I will preface my next question with a sentence from the UNHCR website:
“If the asylum system is both fast and fair, then people who know they are not refugees have little incentive to make a claim in the first place, thereby benefitting both the host country and the refugees for whom the system is intended.”
If we are looking at 15,000 refused asylum seekers, with an associated cost that we might all agree on, does the panel think that we ought to do everything we can to reduce that number and those costs, to be able to fulfil the obligations to refugees that we all want to fulfil—the Prime Minister has set out that we want to—towards refugees coming in from other parts of the world at present, who of course have recourse to public funds, because they are under the temporary relocation scheme?
Councillor Simmonds: Yes, entirely. If we look at the Syrian programme, which is under way at the moment, people coming with humanitarian status will have rights, and the expectation is that they will be able to access fully UK public services but also will be expected to work.
Picking up on the point about the numbers, there is a survey that is probably the most up-to-date one, because I do not think we have any national data on the number of people who are here irregularly as migrants under one status or another. The Greater London Authority commissioned a study. It is from 2007 and it gives the most recent national figure. It estimated that the number of irregular migrants—this is people with a number of different statuses—was between 417,000 and 863,000.
In terms of the numbers at present, we know the organisations that participate in Henry’s body. There was a survey recently, in January this year, and it put the number at around 2,154 households, supported by the 34 authorities that provided detailed information, at a cost of £613,872 per week. Clearly, that is a significant cost to UK taxpayers for people who will fall into a number of different groups; not just failed asylum seekers but visa overstayers and various other categories.
I do not know whether any of the witnesses has those figures in a table, because it is very difficult to take them all down. If you could write to us, I would like to circulate them to the Committee.
I would just like to follow up a little on some of the witnesses’ answers to the Minister’s questions about the interaction that you have had with the Home Office. Mr Greenhalgh, you said in relation to the 2005 pilot by the then Labour Government that it not only failed but was counter- productive, in that it drove many people underground and made compliance more difficult. From the discussions that you have had with the Home Office, do you know what different measures the Home Office is putting in place that will mean this time it is different, and are you confident that that is the case?
Paul Greenhalgh: I spoke about the complexity of the current assessment system when families need to come to local authorities for support. So, as the Bill is currently drafted, we believe that the number of families that would inevitably come to local authorities for support would increase significantly.
One of the questions that we are exploring with the Home Office is whether it is appropriate to leave the legislation around the Children Act as it currently stands, which we then have to apply to those families, or whether we take migrant families without status out of the Children Act and provide support for them through schedule 3 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. There are some advantages to that, in terms of the potential for establishing a new simplified assessment system, for providing support in a way that takes more account of the family’s immigration status and for being more explicit about the fact that it would result in a clear new burden on the local authority, which would need to be funded. That is one mechanism that we are in discussion about.
I will come to funding in a moment, if I may. I was particularly interested in the issue of compliance. You pointed out that the previous pilot had been counterproductive. What indications have you been given in your discussions with the Home Office that you think, in terms of the policy objective, that it will be different this time?
Paul Greenhalgh: We still have concerns about the assumptions about behavioural change and the extent to which families will take responsibility for removing themselves from the country. That is why, in addition to the technical discussions about where changes might be made to the Bill or not, we think that that needs to go alongside closer partnership working between local authorities and the Home Office, to ensure that families who are no longer getting support and who need to think about removing themselves from the country have a more joined-up approach from the local authority and the Home Office working together. We think that that would make it more effective, more user-friendly and clearer for people and more nationally consistent, and so would present the potential for a series of arrangements that could be more effective than the Bill as currently drafted.
You are describing your aspirations for how it might be more effective, but I am thinking of where you have got to in your discussions with the Home Office. You have said that there is a constructive engagement. As we stand at the moment, in terms of what has been agreed, would it be unreasonable to say—I do not want to put words in your mouth—that there is nothing that gives you confidence that this would be any different from the pilot in 2005?
Paul Greenhalgh: No, I would not say that, actually. I think that there are some interesting ideas on the table. I think that we are seeking further assurance around the extent to which those new possible technical arrangements would provide the assurances that we think need to be in place, in terms of both safeguarding children and recognising the cost to local authorities.
On the cost, it is about that assurance. Representing a large northern city, I am conscious that local government has taken a disproportionate hit, particularly in areas where we have a concentration of asylum seekers. I am keen to know whether you have assurances from the Home Office that all the additional costs will be met. Yes or no will do.
Councillor Simmonds: The straight answer is no, partly because the Bill is still under debate. As a politician, I am really clear that there needs to be a decision one way or the other. Either we are willing to identify people to remove them from the country, or we need to make provision for their support while they are here. What we cannot do is say that they have no recourse to public funds. That just means that the UK taxpayer picks up the cost through a different route, which is local authority support. That is the thing that needs to change.
In my constituency and across my county of Kent this summer, we have seen very high numbers of unaccompanied minors. I understand that it has been an issue not just for Kent but for some of the surrounding local authorities. How do you feel that the Home Office has engaged with you with regard to dealing with that particular problem over the summer, and how do you see things moving forward?
Councillor Simmonds: The Local Government Association has put forward a proposal, supported by colleagues in the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, for a national scheme to address the concerns in Kent. The existing legal framework allows other local authorities to assist voluntarily, but we know if somebody is an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child and to take a very simple example it is likely when they become a care leaver that they will go to university, that means, following the Barking and Dagenham judgment, that the local authority where they are will pay the full foreign student fees for them during their time at university, which is a massive and entirely underfunded cost. It is clear that other local authorities have said, “We are perfectly willing to assist, but we need some assurance that there will be funding available.” Some limited amounts have been put forward by the Home Office to help, but it is clear that we need a national scheme.
My view, and the view of others who have been involved with this issue for many years, is that we would achieve much greater economies of scale by doing that rather than leaving authorities like Kent in a situation where, essentially, they have to pay whatever providers wish to charge them, because they have no option. Other areas that perhaps could assist are not going to be willing to do so, because they are being asked to do so on an unfunded basis.
Councillor Simmonds: I have met the Minister to talk about this. I know Edward Timpson, the other Minister at the Department for Education who is responsible there, the Local Government Association and others have been involved in discussions on this for some time. We have put a proposal out. Essentially, the decision that needs to be made is whether that is something that is going to be locally led, or, given the asylum issues involved, whether the Home Office would feel more comfortable with it being led nationally, such as by the National Asylum Support Service. Pending a decision on that, we are in a position to press the button.
Do you feel, at the moment, particularly in the south-east—and perhaps if you have knowledge of the whole of the country—that the pressure we are currently seeing with unaccompanied minors is greater than the perceived pressure that may come due to some of the measures in the Bill?
Paul Greenhalgh: My sense of that is no. Kent is currently the authority with the largest number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. It currently has 800. Croydon is the—[Interruption.] Okay, I think it is 800, but David has a different view. It is somewhere between 800 and 1,200. Croydon is the next biggest authority in terms of the number of unaccompanied asylum seekers. We have 370. I think that those figures are small compared with the impact that the Bill would have with regard to removing support from families with that status.
Councillor Simmonds: It is important to be clear, though, that because the Children Act 1989 makes the local authority at the port of authority the responsible body, it falls disproportionately on a small number of places. If you are a port, or indeed, a local authority such as Leicestershire, with motorway services where lorries travelling from ports tend to deposit people, you may end up with a significant population, and their rights derive from the fact that they are unaccompanied children, so their asylum status is not strictly relevant to that. They gain those rights by virtue of the fact that they are unaccompanied, at which point the Children Act and Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 kick in.
Councillor Simmonds: Paul will have a professional view about that. Clearly, what is not sustainable is to say that people have a portfolio of rights, but there is no funding available to fulfil any of those obligations. So it would be possible—I think the provisions in the Bill could conceivably do it—to say that certain individuals are removed from any consideration under the Children Act. The issue that we would have, of course, is that other avenues will then generally be pursued. One of the common problems for local authorities—I speak from a lot of personal experience—is that as one avenue is closed, another one opens up, so we would need to make sure that any provisions that were envisaged of that nature were extremely comprehensive. It would be a challenge for parliamentarians collectively to say that we are going to walk through the Lobby and say, “We are determined to remove a group of children who are in the UK from being considered as children and view them simply as illegal immigrants, and therefore, not entitled to support.” I suspect that, on a cross-party basis, Parliament would have a challenge in getting that through and finding that it could be supported easily.
We heard in earlier evidence that, when the final refusal comes, virtually everyone, it has been suggested, suddenly goes underground, beneath the radar. Clearly, that is not the case because a lot of people turn up at the doors of town halls across the country. What percentage of those who are refused do you reckon the Government deal with?
Councillor Simmonds: Almost all, but in various different categories. In the last year for which we have figures, about 12,500 people were removed by the Home Office and processes of immigration control. The rest will, under one category or another, by and large, be entitled to some form of support. It is quite common. There is a case that my authority is involved in: a young man applies for asylum, is refused, appeals, is refused, is taken to the removal centre and then says, “Actually, I’m a child. I’m not an adult. According to the passport I presented when I applied for asylum, I am a child.” He has now been released, via the Home Office, into the care of my local authority.
Order. I am so sorry to interrupt a witness but that brings us to the end of the time allocated for the Committee to ask questions. I apologise to the hon. Members who were not able to get in. I thank the excellent witnesses. We could have gone on for longer but we were beaten by the clock.